Tag Archives: walking

Seasonal wandering and snowdrops

This is a difficult time of year for walking. Footpaths through fields and woods are muddy, which can make them slippery and treacherous. For anyone less than perfectly confident on their feet, this kind of walking condition can be really off-putting. Add to that the unpredictable weather conditions, the cold, the potential for ice, or for rain turning into ice as it hits the ground, and it really isn’t walking season. Shorter days in terms of light also make longer walks less feasible.

However, walking is what I do to commune with nature, it is a big part of my spiritual life, so even in January when it’s cold I need to get out. I’m lucky in that there’s a lot of canal towpath in Stroud, and a good length of cycle path – both of which are reasonably passable in all weathers. There’s also a fair amount of lanes in villages around the town, so winter road walking is an option.

Lane walking is a bit of a mixed bag. On the whole lanes are good because they take you through the countryside without requiring you to tackle a mudslick at any point. Predictable footing is worth a lot. Mostly lanes are quiet, and you can hear vehicles coming. However, close encounters with passing tractors can be unnerving, and all it takes is one idiot racing round the bends at high speed to make it a dangerous place to be. Having done years of walking and cycling in country lanes, I remain unscathed, but I’ve been worried a few times.

The margins of lanes tend to be good places for wildflowers throughout the year. That starts now, with snowdrops putting up leaves and already flowering along the lane margins.

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Two Women Parted in a Wood – a poem

She tells me there’s no point without the view.

What to do?

For the clouds have come down round the hills,

With misty chills.

The Severn but a rumour, lost to sight

From this height.

No drama on the Cotswold Way she’ll find.

Declined.

Why even bother walking down this path?

 

She steps away to follow the track

A trudging form in a plastic mac,

She goes the way from whence I came

One path, but journeys not the same.

I saw the hillside, saw the mist,

The trees by early autumn kissed.

I heard the rain on dancing leaves

The song the wind in branches weaves.

I heard the barn owl and the crow

I noticed where the toadstools grow.

Where colours shine through drizzle’s grey

And joyful dogs come out to play.

I walked my path with cheerful heart

She would not walk it, will depart.

For what’s the point, without a view?

The walk’s a pointless thing to do.

 

Two women parted in a wood.

Both took the road most travelled by,

For that was not the difference.


Walking at first light

The sun hasn’t cleared the hill as I set out, so while it’s light, the cold from the previous night still hangs in the air. It’s startling cold given how bright the day looked before I headed out.

There’s a clear line across the fields. On the shadow side of the line, night lingers in the dew heavy grass, and it is so very cold. My path is also on the shadow side. I am under-dressed, and seriously consider going back. What keeps me moving is the line I walk in parallel with – because on the other side of that line is the land the sun has already reached. It shines with the gold of new light, and promise and all good things.

I don’t walk that far, and when I turn around to head for home, the sun has reached the larches and other tree tops, bathing them in colour. The air is warmer as I trot back. I see a small rabbit out in the field, hear a pheasant. Outside my door, two robins are engaged in a dance that could be about pair bonding, or territory. I’m not sure how to read it. They are untroubled by my approach.

Pagan Pilgrimage need not be about distance. It need not be away into some supposedly pristine environment.


A sudden spring

Last Friday when we walked through the wood it was all much as it had been through the winter. There were buds fattening, but that was all. We walked through the same wood two days later, and everything had changed. The brown of dead leaves covering the ground had been replaced by green as the wild garlic had come through. Elder leaves were unfurling in earnest – they always are early in that spot. The wild plum had produced its first flowers.

This is a route I usually walk several times over a week, so I know its habits well and watch it for seasonal changes. Going from brown to green so quickly startled me. But then, the Friday had been warm enough to be without a coat and this had clearly affected the soil.

I read once that as trees feel the approach of spring and gear up, they put out heat – not a vast amount, but enough to give any plants at their base a head start, too.

Last week I blogged about spring walking, and the uncertainties of planning long wanders early in the season. I worried about the cold. What happened instead was that I was stripped down to bare arms at one point in the walk, with too much sun an unexpected issue. I’m not sure if it’s sun stroke or heat stroke that gets me, but I’ve never had to think about either in February before. March yes, but not February.

There were kingcups in flower, the celandines are out and I found some amazing snowdrop patches. I didn’t have a camera, but I plan to change that. I don’t want to spend my time looking at the world through one, but I would like to collect more images of plants through the seasons. More of that as it happens.


Wandering in early spring

January and early February are quiet months in the seasonal walking calendar. I don’t plan big walks at this time of year, because the weather is too unpredictable and I don’t like slippery surfaces much. Plus, tramping about in mud can do a lot of damage to land and plants alike, so I tend to limit walks to lanes and solid footpaths.

My seasonal plants of preference – snowdrops and catkins – are available right outside my front door, so seasonal plant-orientated pilgrimage does not have to involve much effort!

However, we’ve reached that point in the year when there are odd warm days, its drier underfoot and it can be good walking weather. It’s tempting to get out, but still risky. How risky walking at this time of year will be of course depends firstly on where you live. Are sudden blizzards a risk? Could sudden loss of visibility put you in danger? What’s the footing like and can it change quickly if the weather changes?

I live in a fairly mild part of the world, and I don’t walk in the mountains. My risks for this time of year are about getting cold. With crappy circulation, I suffer a lot if I can’t stay warm and while walking is good for circulation, if the ground is cold enough, or the wind chill fierce enough, it can get challenging.

I know for a lot of people the great challenge of pitting self against nature is an exciting prospect. I don’t have a body or a mind for conquering anything, so I have to work cooperatively with the natural world. I have to walk when it’s passably sensible and stay in if it isn’t. I have to consider how cold I can afford to get when thinking about distance. There’s no one right way of doing this stuff, but I assert that it’s absolutely ok to be not in the least bit macho about it.


How to start the day

Back in the summer of 2016, I was ill. More ill than usual, and ill enough to be worried about it. Yet another round of burnout had left me plummeting into depression, but alongside this were increasing signs that my body just couldn’t take the strain any more. I realised that if I didn’t make some radical changes, I could get into serious trouble.

One of the things I did as part of a radical life shift, was to start walking first thing in the morning. Previously I’d been working at the computer by seven am most days. Instead, after the lad left the establishment for school I’d put in a half an hour walk, and hit the keyboard somewhere after eight. It soon became obvious that I was rolling in to work with a clearer head and better concentration, and that some of my ever longer hours had been down to the snail’s pace I’d previously been reduced to.

I promised myself that days would be less than ten hours and weeks would have 2 day weekends, and mostly I’ve stuck to that, and it has helped me enormously.

Walking first thing gets me outside and connected with the natural world. It gets the blood moving, and with my often-sluggish circulation, that’s a real plus. It means I don’t move from bed to workspace of a morning, but get something else in the mix.

It’s really hard, on the days when energy is in short supply, to prioritise walking. Going out first thing knowing I may be compromising my ability to work into the afternoon, is a challenge. Using the time on something for me goes against the grain a bit. But then, how I think about myself is one of the things I’ve had to change to enable me to make progress towards being more well. I had to stop being a resource for others to use, and start being a person. Through this process, I’ve put down a lot of unpaid work, and I’ve changed policy on that. I won’t run round after people who aren’t being nice to me. It’s amazing how much extra time and energy that move has liberated.

During the darkest part of the year, I stopped walking first thing – I hate getting up in the dark, I’m even less keen on going out then. However, there’s now predawn light at the right point in the day, and I’ve gone back to it. I feel good about the early morning walking. I’ll need a more cunning plan for next winter, but I’ve plenty of time to figure that out.


Walking for Beltain

The most obvious association with Beltain is the May blossom – the hawthorn flower, traditionally collected and brought into homes for this festival. Hawthorn is most reliably found as a hedgerow plant, so walking in country lanes around the start of May is the easiest way to find it. Blackthorn is also in blossom, and both hawthorn and blackthorn have white flowers, but they are easy to tell apart – blackthorn flowers before it leafs, whereas hawthorn flowers after its leaves are open.

For me, finding the hawthorn flowers is not the key thing for this festival. Instead, I’m drawn to the woodland flowers. It’s at this time of year – before the leaves are all out – that woodlands come into flower. My holy trinity of bluebell, wild garlic, and wood anemone fill the woods with scents and colours. There are places where vast swathes of bluebells all come up together – misty and sea-like between the trees. The subtle scent of the bluebells becomes discernible, in sudden, glorious washes of sweet perfume.

Bluebells don’t grow in this profusion just anywhere. Since the spring, I’ve been keeping an eye on the woods where I walk, looking at the leaves to see what’s coming – where the great swathes of garlic would be, where the bluebells dominate, and where there’s a mix. I’ve been waiting for the flowers. I walked to see them at the end of April, and again, more successfully, on Beltain eve. As an added bonus at the same time as all this floral delight, the first beech leaves are unfurling. Beech starts out an amazing, vibrant green and gradually darkens as the year progresses. There’s something giddy about them as they first show.

I seem to have found my ideal Beltain walk for my current location, which takes in two barrows, hilltop woodland, and a lush valley. A person can get drink on the colour and smell of a bluebell wood.


How far should I go?

How far do you have to go for it to be a pilgrimage?

As far as I am concerned, pilgrimage is not a matter of time or distance, but a matter of communion. The single biggest factor in how far you go, how often and for how long, is your own body. We’re all different. The more involved a person is with walking, or other forms of movement, the more attention they have to pay to their limits, and those limits change. Some of us can expect to see increased strength, stamina and mobility over time. Others of us will be dealing with deterioration. Some of us will experience shifts back and forth between the two.

For the person interested in embodied spirituality, knowing your limits is a good thing. There’s an intensity of feeling that comes from pushing to the edges of what you can do – regardless of where those edges are. Start modestly, with things you know you can do. There is no race here. Build confidence over time, build strength and stamina if you can, or strategies. If you have to choose between distance and time, choose time. It’s the being outside that really matters. Better to spend an afternoon pottering about that a frantic half hour that leaves you exhausted.

Perhaps the most important thing here is that time spent walking is time away from the rest of life. This is equally true for time spent sitting out. There’s a chance to change our inner pace, to slow down and notice what’s around us. Humans are increasingly prone to rushing, stress and overstimulation. The more time you can spend away from that, the better.

In most aspects of life, the really fertile places are the edges. In this case, it’s the edge of your ability to keep walking. I find that when I’ve gone long enough, and far enough, peace enters me. My thoughts become uncluttered. About this time I notice the way the deeper breathing of cleaner air is impacting on my sense of self. I’ll tend to feel cleaner on the inside. More so if I’ve walked amongst trees. A kind of euphoria kicks in. This takes longer to achieve than it used to, and lasts longer than it used to. On the far side of the euphoria is exhaustion, and pain.

I have no problem with pain being part of my spiritual experience. I may be slightly masochistic because I feel better about my body when I can barely put one foot in front of another. If, for whatever reason, you need an element of martyrdom and pain as part of your pilgrimage, that’s your business. It’s not necessary to bleed and hurt to be a pilgrim. It’s also not the case that you need to settle on one way of doing this. Some pilgrimages may be gentle, some may break you, and you have to find the balance that answers bodily, emotional and spiritual needs.


The ethics of trespassing

Sometimes I trespass deliberately, often it’s a consequence of not being able to tell where the official footpath went. Often if you are walking in the UK, stepping off the path means trespassing, but it’s not a law that tends to get enforced much unless there’s also criminal damage in the mix. The thing about walking is that if enough people do it for long enough, a footpath can exist, a space can become a village green, and scope for legal protection for that access becomes a possibility.

I am offended by land ownership that limits access. To be clear here – I will respect the privacy of a person’s home and the land immediately around it (unless the footpath goes through their garden, which is always weird). I will respect private property and not damage fences, or anything else that someone has put in the landscape. I am respectful of crops and mindful of livestock. This seems both fair and reasonable to me. I will also stay off land if there’s a wildlife consideration – wildlife also deserves privacy and the freedom to do things quietly and on its own terms without me making a nuisance of myself.

My default as a walker is to want to pass through a landscape without inconveniencing anyone – human and non-human who might also want or need to be using the space. Nothing makes me want to climb over a fence like a big ‘private keep out’ sign. They aren’t always true, either. Footpaths are ‘lost’ or hidden, where landowners would prefer not to have them. When they tell us not to trespass, sometimes they are lying, sometimes we have the right and they do not.

One of the worst examples of this I have thus far found, was on the Severn Way. Come at the path from one side, and you were clearly walking the Severn Way – it had little signs on it and everything. However, at one point the path brought you out through a lane where signage said there was no path, no access, and there might be people out with guns shooting waterfowl. This is one of the reasons it can be worth carrying a map. I’ve also seen locally, places where council signs have gone up to confirm the existence of a right of way, clearly in answer to attempts at hiding or blocking the path. Not all councils would take this seriously, I suspect.

In the UK, we have some of the most uneven distribution of land ownership in Europe. It may be due to the Norman conquest. Wealthy land owners own a lot of the ground, and the right to walk, to ramble, to get out on the grouse moors and the mountains has long been fought over. Especially lovely areas may now be owned by the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, or the Forestry Commission, but with government inclined to sell off everything for private exploitation, we cannot afford to be complacent about access to land.

The right to walk, to see, to move through a landscape should be a given. The obligation to walk responsibly, close gates, avoid upsetting livestock or trampling crops should also be a given – we can’t have rights without responsibilities. The right to own vast swathes of land and keep it inaccessible should be questioned.

I’d go further. I think that a great deal of inequality owes to the fact that a few people own land and most do not. This is the ghost of feudalism, still with us. Land is basic and intrinsic to life. Without land, there is no food, and there is nowhere to live. Land ownership, when you trace it back, has a lot to do with ancient fights, historical politics, royal favour. Outside of Europe, ownership of land has rather too much to do with colonialism, theft, and the forced displacement of native peoples.

Trespass should not exist as an issue, but while it does, we should consider it an ethically sound undertaking.


Personal landscapes and the contents of a map

What would you put in a map? It’s an important question to ask, because when you pick up someone else’s map, you are dealing with their values and priorities, not your own. Would you make a map that described the topography? The Ordinance survey is very much about getting an accurate sense of the geography onto the flat surface of the page. Most of the maps you will find otherwise are road maps, and are entirely about the places cars can go. Wild places are just patches of emptiness, with little or no detail offered. Perhaps the ultimate in transport maps is the London Underground map – which gives you no sense at all of the geography of London, but makes a beautiful, easily read representation of where the trains go.

Would you draw your maps as pictures, like map makers of a few hundred years ago? Or would you make a narrative map like a Saxon perambulation, a story of a journey rather than an image of the place?

Would you put wildlife sightings on your map, or really good views? Would you put in pubs, or ancient sites, or especially good places to duck out of sight for a quick pee? Would your map have seasonal information on it, or notes about the wind so as you knew which walks would be best depending on where the wind was coming from?

I was walking in some very popular local fields, when I passed a local archaeologist who was chatting to someone else. A fragment of conversation reached me. He said “Everyone could draw their own map of the Heavens, and they’d all be different, depending on which bits were important to you.”

We aren’t encouraged to make our own maps, but to use official ones, on which no one has written ‘here be dragons’ or ‘the swinging tree where Eric broke his leg’ or ‘where granny fell off the horse’. Making your own physical map is a way of finding out what’s important to you.

We all have the potential to make maps inside our heads as well. Most people who drive have inner maps for the routes they habitually take. People who walk for leisure will often have a few favourite routes mapped out in their heads as well. Taxi drivers are legendary for their ability to map vast and complex cities in their heads. However, aside from taxi drivers, most of us do not set out to build maps inside our heads, and we aren’t taught how to map a landscape. We pick up routes by use, from signposts, from official maps, and the like. It’s worth noting that back before there were signposts, drovers took animals over vast distances from the places they were reared, to the urban markets where they were sold. We have a capacity for inner maps, far beyond anything most of us normally explore.

To have an inner map is to know where you live. It’s to have little anxiety about ever getting lost. It is also a consequence of relationship with a place, and as such it has a massive rooting influence. When we make our own maps – on paper or in our heads, what we plot onto them are the things that matter to us. This changes your relationship with the things that matter to you, as well. Part of my personal mapping is a mapping of wildflowers, noteworthy trees, and wildlife sightings, so when I’m out and about, I have a greater awareness of what I could see, and thus more chance of seeing it again. My local maps are full of stories – family stories, local history, folklore, and things of my own. I can never feel lonely in a place where there are so many stories.